Invasive Plants on the Land – A Vermont Challenge

By Colleen Balch

Vermonters’ lives are connected to the land of our small state. We hike and farm. We fish and sugar. We walk and ride and hunt. We care for our yards and gardens. We value our wildlife and lovely green vistas. We spend time outdoors. And, while we might not always recognize it, we are witnessing a change that could impact many of the things we value about our small, green, mountainous state. The quiet spread of invasive plants across our landscape presents a call to action.

An invasive plant isn’t simply a problem because it’s from somewhere else. A plant from somewhere else that stays put is just a polite and welcome visitor wherever it takes root. It can add color to our yards like our favorite daffodils, tea roses, and hydrangeas. It can give us the great taste of a summertime garden with that first warm, ripe tomato fresh from the garden. Or, it can stock our root cellars with home grown potatoes and cabbages. It doesn’t pose a threat. 


A family putting the skills they've learned to good use in an Invasive Plant
 Habitat Restoration program at Emerald Lake State Park
What makes a plant an invasive is that it’s very good at making a living here in Vermont.  So good in fact, that when it goes head-to-head with the plants that belong here, it out-competes and forces the native plants out. When that happens, impacts move through the habitat in a variety of ways. 

Vermont Traditions and Economy
Replace a score of native plants that normally grow together here on the forest floor with one invasive honeysuckle, and an impenetrable thicket results. For folks who manage a sugarbush, sap lines are hard to run. For hunters, sightlines disappear and browse for deer populations drops. Seedlings that naturally sprout to renew economically valuable trees within the forest, never reach maturity. 

Tick Presence
Invasive plants, particularly Barberries, create conditions that promote larger populations of Deer Ticks, the small pest that spreads Lyme Disease. Barberries are thorny and create protected havens for mice which Deer Ticks need during their life-cycle. More and larger mice populations equal more and larger tick populations. Larger tick populations have greater impacts on human health. And, the Barberries also create areas of higher moisture that help out ticks too.

Wildlife and Fish Habitat
Lose a number of plants that normally live on the forest floor to a pure carpet of invasive Garlic Mustard, and that loss impacts the animals that feed on, nest in, hide in, and use the native plants in any way.  Replace shrubs with strong and durable roots that have lined our mountain streams for millennia with Japanese Knotweed, which dies back below ground each fall, and the streambank soil becomes stripped and vulnerable to springtime floods.  As the powerful floodwaters scrub the streambanks, soil erodes and is carried along.   Much of that soil ends up filling the tiny spaces between the rocks in gravel beds that trout use to spawn.  With the spaces filled in, the fish eggs and their teeny hatchlings lose protection from the force of rushing waters and predators.  Fish populations struggle.

These threats are not a forgone conclusion. Vermonters can protect the lands we value in our state, especially when we work together. And getting the know how, information, and practice that can make the difference is a lot easier now than it has been. The Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation is launching an engaging new program across the southwestern portion of our state. They are reaching out to community members, businesses, organizations, and any others from Bennington to Burlington to engage Vermonters in this critical conservation effort that puts both private and public lands at risk. In half-day programs, volunteers join Department specialists to learn how to identify and combat invasive plants and practice removal skills. And while they are learning, the volunteers are spending a day in a great spot and helping combat invasive plants in State Forests and Parks. To learn more about the Invasive Plant Habitat Restoration program, contact Colleen Balch at (802) 377-2615 or colleen.balch@state.vt.us. Join us and learn to care for your own lands, support our native wildlife, support our Vermont traditions, and our Vermont economy.

Colleen Balch works with the Invasive Plant Habitat Restoration Program of the Vermont Department of Forests Parks and Recreation, teaches field and conservation sciences in the Rutland area, and lives in the Taconic Mountains in southwestern Vermont. 

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